How do you know if you're good at something? Difficulty level: lack of feedback
November 6, 2012 7:49 AM   Subscribe

How do you know if you're good at something?

It's easy to get feedback in school: If you get A's in subject X, you're probably good at subject X.

It's easy to get feedback in a field with a lot of visibility: If your blog has a lot of readers and your posts get linked often and in a positive way, you're probably good at it.

It's easy to get feedback in a lucrative field: If you're making a lot of money, you're probably good at that money-making enterprise.

But there are a lot of areas where feedback is almost non-existent or highly subjective. In those areas, how do you know if you are any good?
posted by jcatus to Grab Bag (21 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
I guess it would have to be whether you are enjoying it or not.
posted by gjc at 7:52 AM on November 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think it's when achievement meets intent.

This removes external comparisons and leaves it in your hands both to DO and to VALUE.

All other feedback hinges on whatever other people think, and no matter what it is, there is someone better at everything. Usually millions.
posted by FauxScot at 7:59 AM on November 6, 2012 [6 favorites]

I over heard a doctor once say this to his student:

First time watch,
second time do,
third time teach.
posted by ben30 at 8:02 AM on November 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yeah, that's difficult, especially in the face of the Dunning-Kruger effect, which essentially says incompetent people will overestimate their own skills to compensate for their poor abilities.

I think you need to find other people you trust and ask their opinions. Go to a writing club, cook for your friends, talk to your manager! But the key is to listen even when you disagree.
posted by OrangeDrink at 8:06 AM on November 6, 2012 [5 favorites]

While your question is rather broad, a good rule of thumb is that you are good at something when other good people in the field accept you as equal. To use an example such as foreign language, the acceptance of native and other highly skilled speakers are the judge of whether you are good.

The Dunning–Kruger effect makes it clear that others, not you, are the judge of your competence. The irony of the effect is that the better you become at something, the more able you are to see your shortcomings. The incompetent, on the other hand, are unable to see their inadequacy or the expertise of others.

This effect is on full display when a layman tries to tell an expert how they are wrong, such as when a layman claims that biologists are lying or mistaken about evolution or when a layman tells me (a lawyer) that there is no legal obligation to pay income tax because Ohio wasn't a state.
posted by Tanizaki at 8:07 AM on November 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

Depends what you do. In some fields it is basically impossible to separate luck from skill, in others its quite easy. I work in a field where it is nearly impossible to tell luck from skill. You just have to learn to deal with it.
posted by JPD at 8:09 AM on November 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's easy to get feedback in a lucrative field: If you're making a lot of money, you're probably good at that money-making enterprise.

Believe me - this is a very very very mistaken assumption
posted by JPD at 8:10 AM on November 6, 2012 [5 favorites]

Usually because you achieve status or (positive or negative) notoriety or awards/rewards within your professional group. So I work in the library field when I'm not working at MeFi and the people who are good at being a librarian sometimes don't make a splash in the larger world BUT they are often recognized by their peers as being very good at what they do and this recognition filters upwards through local and state and national groups. Sometimes they win awards. Sometimes they are invited to share their expertise in some sort of spoken or written fashion (columns in magazines, keynote speeches at events). Sometimes they are asked to advise on matters that affect more people (serving a role in a state or national professional organization). And each time their set of ideas and practices are opened up to a larger group of people, they get more feedback on those ideas. So, someone who was terrific at working in their own community might or might not have a technique that worked in a larger setting. Which is fine, but it means you have a more specialized skill that might be more narrow-focused and it's worth understanding that and doing what you want to do if you want to change that.

Also, make sure you know the difference between being successful at something (i.e. making money or becoming well-known or popular), being effective at it (being very good at achieving the end goals of the thing usually in some sort of efficient way) and being good at it (being competent, better than average) and, of course, being popular for the thing which may or may not overlap with the others.
posted by jessamyn at 8:12 AM on November 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

These are the phases of Learning A Thing:

1: I am a beginner
2: I think I am pretty good
3: I compare myself to the real experts and realize I have a lot more to learn, and am not good at all
4: I am improving but still see there is a lot more to learn, and a lot of people who are better at it than I am
5: GOTO 4
Anything after step 3 qualifies as "good".
posted by ook at 8:22 AM on November 6, 2012 [31 favorites]

(And the real trick in my experience is not to succumb to crippling despair, anxiety or self-consciousness at step 3)
posted by ook at 8:24 AM on November 6, 2012 [7 favorites]

Your answer is going to depend on the metrics of "success" but basically adequacy is defined as whether or not the process you undergo achieves the goals you set for it, and adeptness at that process would be defined as the ability you have to avoid error, waste time and eschew unnecessary steps whilst performing it. If you are adequate (succeed in performing) and adept (without error, unnecessary steps or waste) at a task, then you are "good at it".
posted by seanmpuckett at 8:24 AM on November 6, 2012

(And the real trick in my experience is not to succumb to crippling despair, anxiety or self-consciousness at step 3)

As per Ira Glass.
posted by BrashTech at 8:32 AM on November 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

@ook Yes! This is the sort of answer I'm looking for.

I understand that external validation is important for understanding whether you're good, but I'm curious what personal metrics of success look like.
posted by jcatus at 8:53 AM on November 6, 2012

If it's something subjective and there are no tangible indicators of performance then maybe the concept of "being good at it" is not a relevant one.

If you're willing to accept things like having a lot of readers for your blog as indicators of being good at blogging there's usually some analogue to that, as in lots of people think or say that you're good.

It's hard to say much without having a concrete example of what it is that you want to be able to assess.

In reality figuring out reliable indicators of how well something is succeeding is pretty important for telling if it really is succeeding, and for enabling the learning processes to raise the performance level. Fields where such indicators don't exist are often rife with people and orgs that are doing pretty poorly but able to BS everyone that they're doing a good job.
posted by philipy at 8:56 AM on November 6, 2012

Well, "personal metrics of success" are another thing entirely, but as far as measuring skill or success at a specific task, ook points to the importance of looking at others. Who do you think is really great at this task? Why do you think that? Can you watch and learn from what they do? That will make you better. And it will help you to qualify in your head what the results are that you want. Does being a great high-school teacher mean that the kids are always quiet and entranced? Does it mean that they are asking good questions? Does it mean that they are going home thinking about your subject, and coming in the next day with all sorts of ideas and interest? Does it mean that they are doing well on the final tests, or well-prepared for the next year's classes?

Figuring out what, exactly, you want to achieve is part of how you figure out whether you're succeeding.
posted by Lady Li at 9:08 AM on November 6, 2012

If you're looking for totally personal metrics, you might consider recording yourself doing the thing at various points during your learning period. I used to record myself as I learned a new instrument. Later in the process, when I listened to earlier recordings, I would hear problems that I was deaf to when I made the recording. This would "prove" to me that I had gotten better, even if I felt like I wasn't any better. But to feel objectively "good" I would need to compare myself to experts and gauge the distance between me and them.
posted by ceiba at 9:42 AM on November 6, 2012

I am a musician. I think I'm pretty good at my chosen genre because other people want to play with me. However, this doesn't mean that I'm a virtuoso or anything like that.
posted by monospace at 9:48 AM on November 6, 2012

I see on rereading that my answer above does sound mostly focused on external validation, but that's not really what I was trying to get at. For me it's mostly about getting past that plateau of thinking you know everything and into the knowing-there-is-always-more-to-learn part.

I don't think it matters whether that's done by comparing yourself to others, or by comparing your aspirations to your actual results.
posted by ook at 11:09 AM on November 6, 2012

People who are good at something make it look easy.
posted by dgran at 11:16 AM on November 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

For many things (e.g. cooking, writing, exercising, playing music), learning starts out as basically following instructions or emulating someone else's work. Getting "good" means building up sufficient personal knowledge and confidence that you can rely on yourself to do it.

For example, I can play basic guitar but I need chords in front of me. I am not good at the guitar. My friend can breeze his way through the same song just by feeling it on the fretboard and in his belly. He is good. I can make a pretty good lasagna by following my mom's recipe carefully and keeping my improvisation to a minimum. I am not good at cooking. My mom can make a great lasagna without resort to her recipe, and can mix in new flavors or ingredients if she has them. She is good.
posted by AgentRocket at 12:34 PM on November 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you are doing something that has a tangible outcome (writing music or literature, making furniture, cooking, building model aeroplanes, sewing, whatever), then you can compare your finished product to those made by people who are generally considered to be good at that task.

The key is to not try to rate the quality, but rather to look at the FEATURES. For example, with woodwork, can I see bubbles or cracks in my finish? Can I see them in the finish of this excellent piece of woodwork made by someone else? Do the tool marks show on my piece? On their piece? For knitting: are the stitches on their piece even? Are they on mine? For cooking: is one flavour very dominant or do many flavours blend together?

For some features it is obvious what is supposedly "good" and what isn't (e.g. the woodwork example above). For others you might need to do a bit of research as to what is the norm. For example in published books that win prizes in the genre you write in, how long are they? How much dialogue do they contain? It is possible that good writing is similar in these sorts of respects. And these non-obvious qualities are the sorts of features you might find it easier to objectively measure in your own work.

If you have created a product that is very very different from the norms in a lot of ways, you might be a creative genius producing something truly groundbreakingly original, or you might just not be very good. Then you apply Occam's Razor :)
posted by lollusc at 9:20 PM on November 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

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